Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Botany? It’s all about app-lication…

Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Nowadays, it seems that anybody with a ‘smartphone’ can be a plant biologist. Well, not quite – it takes years of dedicated study, etc to be able to claim that right. But, with such technology to hand, almost any member of the public can do their bit to track the whereabouts of ‘problem plants’ (a rather quaint euphemism for invasive, non-native plant species that pose a threat to indigenous wildlife) in the United Kingdom. The UK’s Environment Agency (part of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, DEFRA) and the University of Bristol have joined forces to help combat the spread of three particularly problematic plants using the ‘PlantTracker’ app. The ‘Most Wanted’ trio are: Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica), Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) and floating pennywort (Hydrocotyle ranunculoides). And data on these plants is (sorry, are) important because they pose a threat to biodiversity, increase flood risk and affect the state of the water environment, costing the British economy a minimum of £1.7 billion per annum(!). The PlantTracker app, which is available free from the iTunes App Store and Android Market, shows the user how to identify each species and enables the submission of ‘geo-located’ pictures so that the distribution and spread of these troublesome botanics can be more accurately recorded. However, initially the project is only being piloted in the Midlands (‘the traditional name for the area comprising central England’). Being a tad cynical one might posit that – once rolled out UK-wide – the app will only record the troublesome threesome in areas where there is mobile phone coverage. So, an ideal strategy for a cunning member of this triumvirate is to establish itself in ‘mobile phone blackspots’ where it can live undetected and unbothered by the new age of digital detectives. Whether the ‘app’ could eventually be used in the USA to plot the location – in cell phone-covered areas! – of H. ranunculoides (which is known variously ‘over there’ as floating pennywort, floating marsh-pennywort, and water-pennywort), and whose status is listed as endangered in several States, is not known ( to me…).

Nigel Chaffey

I am a botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ - and to Botany One - for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. Happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]


  • Nigel: We have a similar developing capability which can be viewed at the Center for Invasive Plant Management ( ). To date, not all states are participating. The surveillance and authority for invasive plant species is primarily delegated to the states. For the State of Washington, the current list can be seen at . It’s a very good “app” in field-use and for creating biogeographical data. The limiting step for us is which telecommunication provider the user is subscribed to. As you mention – coverage gaps. I understand there is another “app” under development which will provide data to the Burke Herbarium (University of Washington) for all Washington plants in addition to the current record and held specimens.

  • I like the idea of these pesky plants hiding out in mobile phone blackspots! Are you sure you can’t just use the GPS on your phone to record a sighting, then upload once you’re connected to the internet?

  • Hi Arthur,
    Thank you for the transatlantic dimension.
    I wonder if we’re talking ‘LeafSnap’ re Washington data..?

    Hi Abbie,
    I don’t know. Maybe a query for the ‘technoBots’..?

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